Henri Dikongui (On-ree Dee-kong-ay) may be an unknown quality to American world music fans, but his music has already made a big impact in Europe, where "C'est La Vie" is currently No. 1 on the world music chart. Back home in Cameroon, he's as notorious as he is famous: His debut album, "Wa (You)," tossed verbal darts at Cameroon's military regime and dealt with weighty matters like racism and the day-to-day hardships of post-colonial life brought on by economic imperialism.
"I was frustrated, an angry young man, when I wrote my first album," Dikongui has said. "Even today, many musicians from the older generation are chained to the past. They live in a self-imposed ghetto of dance music and happy lyrics, partially because in most African nations you risk so much criticizing the government. My generation was born in Africa, but we live all over the world, so we have a more international outlook."
Dikongui's global outlook influences his musical approach as well as his lyrical stance. Like many of the sounds being created by a new generation of African pop artists that includes Sally Nyolo, Ismael Lo and Wasis Diop, to name but a few, "C'est La Vie" tips its hat to the international cadences of the African Diaspora by embracing reggae, samba, salsa, soul and jazz as well as the expected Cameroonian rhythms of makossa and bikutsi.
"C'est La Vie" kicks off with "Ndol'asu," a jaunty Latin-flavored tune that bemoans lost love with a fiddle passage that sounds like Stefan Grapelli sitting in with a charanga band. "Na Teleye Owa Ngea" combines the swing of soca (modern calypso) and the hard rhythms of bikutsi, Cameroon's brand of rock 'n' roll, and features a funky chattering electric guitar and two bass guitars -- one playing lead, one rhythm -- a technique pioneered by reggae musicians. "A Muni (A Man)" addresses spousal abuse with ironic lyrics and a melange of West African dance styles, including makossa, high life and soukous.
"C'est La Vie" isn't all up-tempo, however; it's evenly balanced between smooth dance grooves and ballads. Dikongui's use of slower tempos that marry traditional African rhythms to classical European harmonies and structure make his slower material sound like a breath of fresh air. Tunes like "Ndotu (Sorrow)" and "Na Tem Iti Idaba (In My Dreams)" showcase Dikongui's acoustic guitar and ride understated rhythm tracks that combine African, American and European elements, providing us with the first inklings of what the international pop of the next century may sound like.